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Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents
Who they Are, What They Want. How to Win Them Over
By Jeff Herman
New World Library Copyright © 2014 Jeff Herman
All rights reserved.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS
What You (Might) Need to Know about Publishing, Even If It (Not You) Is Boring and Stupid
PERFECTLY IMPERFECT ADVICE AND RANDOM THOUGHTS
Except for a few hiatuses, I have been in the book publishing business since the early 1980s, when I was in my early twenties. I entered the business without any forethought. I wasn't an avid book lover or English major. My primary mission was to be respectfully employed in a Manhattan skyscraper where people wore jackets and ties and performed seemingly important tasks. That was my projection for post-college success, and I imagined it as glamorous and exotic. Reality was a hard, slow grind compared to the glorious images painted by youthful endorphins and innocence, and getting what we wish for tends to be easier than wearing the shoes day in and day out.
I answered countless blind ads in the employment section of the New York Times for entry-level office jobs. One day, someone with a harried, high-pitched voice called to schedule an interview. I showered and showed up on time in a decent suit. I said little and tried to smile and nod on cue. The only question I recall was if I could start work the following Monday (it was a Friday) for $200 a week (1981) as a "publicity assistant." It was a small independent book publishing company with a compelling list and history. I was second-in-command of the firm's two-person publicity department, which entitled me to do the filing, phone answering, and typing — none of which I knew how to do before doing it. I knew nothing about publishing or what the job entailed. My most important attributes may have been a calm persona of sanity and an apparent willingness to follow orders. Or maybe it was just my sincere promise to show up. In a nutshell, that explains how I "chose" the business I am in.
I tell this vignette because people often ask how I got into the business. But there's also a larger reason why I share this. I didn't have much of a plan or fixed direction, but yet I arrived somewhere and along the way made decisions (good or otherwise), grew, and helped make constructive things happen for myself and others. Maybe it's okay to not know what we want or where we are going in order to accomplish what we should. When I was young, a wise man told me that "man plans, god laughs," and I have subsequently heard that phrase many times. Frankly, I had to grow into understanding what that meant, and I frequently question it all over again. Perhaps writers shouldn't overplan what they write or will write. For sure, they can't fully control what happens to their work after they write it, short of destroying it.
Because it can be useful to consider what others say about what you do and wish to achieve, I have generated this section of the book. Read what you will with absolute discernment. Not all of it is for you, and all of it is imperfect — same as you and me. The only perfection is that you and I are here now together.
LITERARY AGENTS: WHAT THEY ARE AND WHAT THEY DO
Think of a venture capitalist: those people who invest their resources in other people's talents and dreams in exchange for a piece of the glory. The capitalist's skill is the ability to choose wisely and help manifest the endeavor. Literary agents are conceptually similar. For an industry-standard 15 percent commission ("ownership"), we invest considerable measures of time, expertise, and faith in the writers we choose to represent. Our professional credibility is on the line with each pitch we make. We don't directly provide the cash; part of our job is to get the publisher to put its money on the line. If you stick with the trajectory of information that follows, the reasons why most writers elect to have an agent will be made clear.
Publishers Overtly Discourage Unagented/Unsolicited Submissions
A typical publisher's in-house functions include product acquisition and management, back-office administrative tasks, editing, production, distribution, sales and marketing, accounting, and numerous other indispensable aspects related to publishing a book and running a business. However, all editorial content is outsourced and managed from the inside — that is, unlike magazines and newspapers, books are rarely written by in-house staff, which means that they are entirely dependent on "freelance" writers, including you.
If people stopped writing new books, publishers wouldn't have anything new to publish. So it might seem counterintuitive and ironic that most traditional publishers make it difficult, if not impossible, for writers to submit their work for consideration. But from the publisher's perspective, it's about being functional. For every book that gets published at a given moment, there are at least 1,000 manuscripts vying for the same opportunity at the same time. Imagine George Clooney or your favorite heartthrob standing in Times Square and announcing that he's looking for a wife. It would be a chaotic situation, and it's possible he and others would be trampled to death. This illustrates why publishers feel the need to barricade themselves against writers even though they can't exist without them. Not only do publishers lack in-house writers; they also lack an infrastructure for screening and filtering unagented/unsolicited works.
How Do Publishers Find Books to Publish?
Solicitation. Proactive editors sometimes have their own book ideas and will seek people to write them. They might read various literary publications in which virgin content is often debuted, and then contact the writers who impress them. Editors might also scan the news for interesting events and discoveries and then reach out to the people involved. Whenever the editor commences the conversation and offers someone the opportunity to be published, it is solicitation (not the illegal kind).
Agency representation. Editors rely on agents to do hardcore screening and to only represent writers and works that merit publication. Editors don't have time to screen hundreds of works in order to discover one they can publish; they don't have to, because the agents do it for them. When an editor receives a submission from a trusted agent, he or she immediately assumes that the work is professionally qualified and merits quality attention.
Having an agent equals access to editors. Not having an agent usually means the opposite, no matter how good the work might be.
Who Do Agents Work For?
The majority of literary agents are self-employed small-business people. They work for neither the publisher nor the writer but are indispensable to both for different reasons. The agent's constant interest is to generate commissions against the client's advance and subsequent royalties. The healthier the agent can make the client, the healthier the agent can make herself. The agent's revenues are tied to the client's revenues, and this mutuality of interests drives the agent to make the client as successful as possible.
Agents have clear lines that they won't/can't cross on behalf of a client. There are a finite number of publishers and an infinite number of potential clients. An agent can replace an unsatisfied client in a minute and perhaps can never replace an aggrieved publisher. Losing a publisher as a possible customer for future submissions is like permanently losing a large percentage of the business. In practice, it's rare for the agent to be forced into making such choices, and the agent will usually manage to preempt destructive conflicts by simply telling the client what is and isn't acceptable or possible.
The client needs to understand that a literary agent isn't the same as a litigator and won't relentlessly fight for issues that often can't be achieved anyway, such as a 20-city media tour. The agent's interests will stray from the client's interests if the agent-publisher relationship becomes threatened due to the client's actions or demands. However, any author who becomes more problematic than profitable will unilaterally burn all his bridges anyway. An author's profitability must always outpace her negatives, or she will be of diminishing value to both the agent and the publisher. However, agents usually confront publishers if they violate or ignore contracts and what's customary. If a publisher disrespects the client, the agent will feel as if he is being similarly abused and will push back. A key distinction is that for the agent you're a "client," whereas for the publisher you're an "author."
How Do Agents Make Money?
In the context of the agency-client relationship, agents make a 15 percent commission from all the advance and royalty revenues the agent's efforts enable the client to earn.
The above percentage pertains to the moneys received from the US publishers, which usually is the lion's share, if not the only source, of all revenue. The percentages assessed against subsidiary rights from deals made by the agent will vary by agency. For translation deals, most of the time US agents team with foreign agents in the respective countries, and the foreign agent wants at least 10 percent off the top, which generally is charged to the author in addition to the US agent's commission. That's the way it's done. If the US publisher controls the foreign rights, which they often do, the same sub-agent deal is also usually involved, except now the US publisher is also taking a cut. This sounds like a lot of dealings absent the author, but few authors can make these arcane deals unilaterally and they are the primary beneficiaries. Think of it as free money.
How Do False Agents Make Money?
Bogus agents make money in countless ways other than by doing what real agents do. Bogus agents tend not to ever sell works to traditional publishers and don't operate on the basis of earning commissions. Instead, they may offer amazing promises and an itemized menu of nonagent services, like simply reading your work for a fee. Sometimes they will offer a range of editorial services that are not necessarily useful or needed. If someone says she will be your agent if you pay her money, then she isn't a bone fide agent.
Legitimate agencies receive hundreds of unsolicited pitches each month. If a modest fraction of these were converted into a $100 "reading (consideration) fee," it would be a substantial monthly windfall without accountability. Eventually, the internet often exposes such scams, but by that time the bogus agent may have changed their company's name and be exploiting fresh pods of unjaded writers. It's like changing a parking spot if your time limit expires. Sometimes law enforcement will step in, but even then individual monetary losses probably won't ever be recouped, though valuable lessons hopefully will have been learned.
What's the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR)?
The AAR is nothing like the Bar Association, American Medical Association, or any other mandatory-membership professional organization. Agents don't have to belong to or be licensed by any outside entity to be legal. The AAR can loosely be compared to a nonprofit country club minus a physical address, paid staff, and the usual accoutrements. A large percentage of agents choose to join the AAR because it offers a collegial way to network with other agents and find relief from their cloistered offices. To varying degrees, agents are compelled to be competitive with each other for clients, and AAR meetings serve as a refreshing "no-kill" zone where they can presumably be friends with others who understand what they do for a living.
AAR membership is restricted to agents who have made a specific number of actual book deals within a specific time frame and promise to adhere to the AAR's strict codes of conduct. The majority of codes are generic common sense, and a lot of space could be saved if they simply stated "Don't break the law"; but overeducated people prefer to deliberate over everything, and we have all been conditioned to make work for America's bloated legal establishment. However, some of the codes are archaic and prevent many qualified agencies from wanting to join. For instance, the codes seem to proscribe members from establishing separate divisions dedicated to nonagent services, like editing, collaborating, and helping writers self-publish. The fast-changing nature of publishing has made it impossible for an ever-increasing number of boutique agencies to rely only on commission-based services, and agents are exceptionally qualified to provide these kinds of traditionally fee-based services.
What Services and Assets Do Agents Provide in Exchange for Their Commissions?
1. They deliver access to the appropriate editors at traditional publishing companies. Few writers can achieve the same level of access without an agent because editors don't want to do mass screening; they rely upon the agents to do that on their behalf.
2. The agents know who the appropriate editors and publishers are for the works they represent.
3. Agents can accelerate the sales process by going to many publishers simultaneously with the same project, which sometimes creates a competitive bidding war, called "auction."
4. Agents know how to tweak and improve the work in order to maximize its sale to a publisher.
5. Agents understand publisher contracts and how to modify the language to the writer's advantage.
6. Agents know how to assess a work's potential monetary value and are positioned to negotiate the best terms possible.
7. Agents help clients understand how to interact with editors and publishers after the publisher's contract is signed.
8. Agents can provide valuable consultations about what is marketable.
What Won't Agents Do as Part of Their Commission?
I can't speak for all agents, or even for myself in all situations, but in the context of agenting in general, agents shouldn't be counted on as editors — meaning they don't have much time for perfecting or fixing afflicted manuscripts in detail; nor are they publicists or sales reps. The agent may be able to provide excellent referrals for these and other needs or may even have excellent in-house divisions for generally fee-based services. Though there's nothing wrong with an agent offering fee-based services, the agency should make it clear that these services are absolutely separate from commission-based services and that representation isn't contingent on retaining the fee-based services from the agent or from those specifically recommended by the agent.
How Do You Get an Agent?
Getting an agent might not be as difficult as you think. But if you're not thinking about it, don't expect it to be easy. If it were easy, you'd have no reason to buy this book. Some people make it look easy, but what are you seeing? Observing a person's accomplishments absent their likely struggles is rarely a worthy endeavor. Here are some things to consider when trying to land an agent.
Expect rejections. The prima facie percentages are disconcerting. On average, agents reject about 98 percent of what's pitched. There's no rational reason for them to represent something without believing they can sell it to a publisher. Doing so would simply be a waste of everyone's time and not a good way for the agents to leverage their editor relationships. So the odds are that you will receive rejections.
Pitch the right agents. Most agents have areas of editorial specialization and categories they rarely, if ever, deal with. You might have an excellent romance novel, but if you pitch only to agents who never handle romances, your rejection rate will be 100 percent. Conversely, only pitching to appropriate agents might give you a 100 percent "yes" rate. You need to find out who the right agents are for your work, and there are many proven ways to do that. Start by using the agency section in this book (see page 207), but that doesn't need to be the full extent of your research. Each agency's website will probably include a clear statement about what to pitch and what not to bother them with. Visit physical bookstores that have a large shelf of books in your category and read the acknowledgments sections; most of the time the author's agent will be acknowledged. Join local and national organizations that either specialize in your category or seem to have many like-minded members, and make friends. Friends will often share valuable information and experiences with each other and may even make valuable introductions on your behalf. If you enter the community with a sense of generosity you will receive much generosity in turn.
Excerpted from Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents by Jeff Herman. Copyright © 2014 Jeff Herman. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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